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Natalia Molchanova: Freediving champion feared dead

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Media captionFreediver Stephan Whelan: "We haven't seen a freediver like her ever in the sport"

Russian freediving champion Natalia Molchanova is feared dead after going missing on Sunday.

The 53-year-old was diving for fun off Formentera, a Spanish island near Ibiza, when she failed to surface.

Search efforts have been continuing but it is feared she may have been caught up in strong underwater currents.

Her passion for freediving - diving while holding one's breath -"burned so deep inside of her that she dedicated her life to it", her family said.

She was a competitive swimmer as a young woman but left the sport to have a family, going on to take up freediving some 20 years later.

She became "the most decorated competitive freediver in the world", with 41 world records, said her family and the global freediving federation AIDA in a joint statement.

"Natalia trained hard for her sport, she had a nine-minute breath hold, could dive to a depth of 101m [331ft] using a fin and swim a distance of 234m with a fin."

Image copyright AP

She was also the creator and current president of the Freediving Federation of Russia and "has created one of the most vibrant recreational freediving communities in the world".

An underwater robot, helicopter, boat and divers have all been deployed to look for Ms Molchanova but to no avail.

Stephen Whelan, a freediving commentator and friend of Ms Molchanova's for 12 years, said it was "absolutely terrible, shocking news".

'Phenomenal'

Ms Molchanova had been diving at 30-40m - "well within her depth range", he said. "The area is known for strong currents, so she would have been aware of it, but the sea is unpredictable so no matter how you train... if you get caught in strong currents and it takes you in the wrong direction, there's not much you can do."

Mr Whelan called Ms Molchanova "amazing".

"She came on the scene pretty much out of nowhere in 2003. She went on and she set - almost consistently, every year - about two or three world records, individually herself or in a team competition. It was phenomenal, we haven't seen a freediver like her, ever in the sport."

Ms Molchanova had two grown-up children, son Alexey - himself a champion freediver - and daughter Oksana.

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